Anticipating Instability: The Untapped Potential of Women, Peace, and Security
This post was authored by Valerie M. Hudson, a University Distinguished Professor in The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, and Brenda Oppermann, an associate professor in the College of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Naval War College.
Over the past couple of decades, socio-cultural analysis has become increasingly important to the success of military missions in conflict environments, and the women, peace, and security (WPS) agenda can help. Integrating a gender perspective (i.e., accounting for the different experiences of men and women) identifies gender-related enablers, obstacles, and risks associated with violent conflict, improving the military’s understanding of complex security environments and making the planning and execution of military operations more successful. However, we assert that to enhance socio-cultural analysis by taking advantage of the new lenses WPS gives us, the security sector needs access to real-time, gender-related information. Without such information, operational environment assessments will be sub-optimal, denying commanders multiple opportunities to prevent and mitigate conflict as well as promote peace and stability.
Consider political instability forecasting. Despite its long pedigree and deep funding over decades by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and other Department of Defense entities, there has been almost no attempt to incorporate gender variables into these forecasting models. And this is despite the fact that there is a large corpus of empirical work showing important linkages between what is happening with women, on the one hand, and the onset of political violence on the other. For example, increasing levels of brideprice (the price paid by grooms to contract marriage) and polygyny (marriage to multiple women) are tightly linked to incipient political violence through obstruction of marriage markets for disadvantaged and aggrieved young men.
In an interesting recent development, the leader of the Afghan Taliban spotlighted the issues of brideprice and polygyny in a January 2021 decree, distributed to fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He proclaimed that taking multiple wives, paying multiple brideprices, and having to support multiple households has led to corruption and illegality, bringing the Taliban into disrepute not only in the eyes of its enemies, but in the eyes of its own foot soldiers—who don’t have the financial means themselves to practice polygamy. President Ashraf Ghani quipped, “The good news is that the ranking Taliban fighters are sick of fighting while [Taliban leaders] are getting their fourth and fifth wife and are enjoying themselves.” With brideprices ranging up to eight million afghanis ($100,000), corruption and illegal side hustles are commonplace among the leadership, virtually all of whom practice polygyny. This discussion, intersecting with class and age, may wind up fracturing the Taliban in the near term.
So, are any of the Defense Department’s political instability forecasting models tracking brideprice cost, or the rate of polygynous marriages? No, they are not. These insights have not yet been systematically incorporated into situational awareness efforts of the operational environment or more formal forecasting and early warning analytic models.
We have seen commanders, on their own, come to realize that these factors are important. Take the case of the U.S. Army 10th Mountain (MTN) Division that commanded Regional Command-South (RC-South) in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011. Recognizing that the steadily increasing cost of brideprice was one of the factors encouraging young, unmarried Afghan men to fight for the Taliban as a way to earn money for this expense, the 10th MTN Division designed a jobs program with this in mind. The program offered jobs to young men who would be targeted for recruitment by the Taliban during the “poverty cycle,” the six-to-eight-week period before spring when farming families (the bulk of Afghans in that region) were experiencing food shortages. This period coincided with the peak recruiting period for Taliban fighters since its annual fighting season geared up each spring. Aiming to deny the Taliban the fighters it needed by having potential recruits work instead for coalition forces, the 10th MTN Division designed its jobs program to include a bonus at the end for those who successfully completed the program knowing that it would likely be used to pay for brideprice. Commenting on the jobs program, Lieutenant General (ret.) James Terry, RC-South Commander at the time, noted, “While we (the military) didn’t see brideprice cost as an indicator of instability per se, we knew that it was a key factor in the Taliban’s recruitment and therefore should be addressed to win the fight against the Taliban.” Consequently, brideprice became part of the RC-South’s strategy to defeat the Taliban.
While the 10th MTN Division was far ahead of other regional commands when it came to recognizing the influence of gender on stabilization efforts (it was the first regional command to include a Gender Annex in its Operational Order), none of the regional commands in Afghanistan integrated issues like brideprice and other gender-related data into their stabilization operations nor did they consider them as anticipatory indicators of violent conflict. The reasons include a lack of awareness of the research documenting the linkages, a lack of access to the needed data, and lingering prejudice against including “soft” women’s issues in the hard-nosed world of national security. We know we can do better, and it’s time we did.
In this short article, we will focus on the difficulties in obtaining the right data at a granular level and in near-real-time to augment the military’s situational awareness on the ground. And make no mistake, this is a formidable obstacle. One of us (Hudson) has spent over two decades collecting data on the situation of women on the ground, such as about brideprice and polygyny, and can tell you just how tough this is. These variables have not, generally speaking, been considered important by either governments or inter-governmental organizations, and so there is no formal data collection effort for many phenomena that would be useful to examine.
Information tracked periodically and at the national level may be useful as backgrounding, but meaningful situational awareness must have granular, near-real-time dimensions. To demonstrate, consider this national-level African region map of the prevalence and legality of polygyny, which is a known risk factor for instability.
The map is interesting, to be sure, but not as valuable as it could be. Now consider instead the following map, showing semi-granular details of ethnic groups in Africa that practice polygyny (in blue) with an overlay of political violence events (red):
With this more granular level data, patterns and associations become much more apparent. Now consider coupling granular data on change in the prevalence of polygyny and other gender-related indicators over the last five years with information about economic growth, effective governance, rule of law indicators, and other operational variables that drive conflict analysis. Would that be useful for military commanders in the field? Yes, indeed. It could, for example, indicate which areas are at greatest risk of instability and of rebel or guerrilla recruitment.
Collecting and analyzing granular level gender data would also help analysts move towards social system mapping and dynamic tracking of these complex systems. This means combining qualitative and quantitative data at speed to navigate social change and create crucial decision space. This would require decentralized data inflow; real-time collection; granular social systems mapping; and automatic social system trend tracking. This represents the cutting edge of understanding conflict and the new frontier we aspire to help create.
We now know that the situation, status, and security of women is linked to national security outcomes. The time to design practical, effective ways to collect real-time, granular, gender-related information like brideprice, child marriage, polygyny, and other indicators of female subordination is now. Ignored for too long, this data—collected at speed and scale—will create operational advantage on the battlefield, one of the focus areas highlighted in the 2020 Department of Defense Data Strategy. Developing gender analysis capabilities provides commanders with a more holistic understanding of highly complex security landscapes, helping them to mitigate risks and optimize mission success in the ongoing effort to promote peace and stability.
Valerie M. Hudson is a University Distinguished Professor and holds the George H.W. Bush Chair in the Department of International Affairs in The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, where she directs the Program on Women, Peace, and Security. She is a founder and co-principal investigator of The WomanStats Project, and her most recent co-authored book is The First Political Order: How Sex Shapes Governance and National Security Worldwide.
Brenda Oppermann is an Associate Professor in the College of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Naval War College. She has worked in many conflict-affected countries and served as a Stability Operations Advisor for the U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.